Myra Abdallah

Diseases? What diseases?

A car hemmed in by rotting food and household waste in Beirut. (Image: AP / Bilal Hussein)

It has been six months since Lebanon’s garbage crisis began, and with no proximate solutions, the outbreak of a number of diseases and viruses has become a necessary evil. Despite the continuous attempts by the Ministry of Public Health and a number of doctors’ to lessen the concerns of the Lebanese people about the gravity of the garbage situation, Lebanese citizens are now aware of the existence of various  viruses and infections, caused by contaminated water or food, in their country. A recent outbreak of H1N1 flu virus, also known as the Swine flu, has made them even more worried; and a more recent rumor circulating about a Zika virus outbreak has made the Lebanese people realized how unhealthy a country Lebanon has become. Yet, the Ministry of Public Health and infectious disease doctors are still trying hard to avoid causing a state of panic among citizens by denying the existence of deadly viruses or garbage-related infections.

The garbage crisis hit Lebanon last summer. Environmental experts warned of the danger that could put Lebanon’s environment at risk when it started to rain. Lebanese citizens took to the streets to pressure the government – that is still unable to find a solution – to take fast decisions in order to solve the trash problem before the winter season. Environmental experts previously told NOW that after the first rain, the water will carry all the diseases that exist in garbage and disperse them everywhere. When the water runs through trash piles, it becomes leachate. The leachate that contains bacteria and viruses will be carried to groundwater especially that, in Beirut, groundwater is not on a deep level under the soil’s surface. “The groundwater is already contaminated by now,” said head of the Domestic Waste Management Plan at Arc-en-ciel Chris Dersarkissian. “However, the situation has not reached a dead-end yet, especially if we were able to find a solution now. Although H1N1 is not related to garbage, there are other diseases like skin rashes that are directly related to it.”

“There are no new viruses that appeared because of garbage,” said infectious disease doctor at Mount Lebanon Hospital Gilbert el-Helou. “H1N1 is not related to the garbage crisis at all. Currently, garbage related diseases are hard to be detected. In the future, when the garbage heavily pollutes the water, diseases like Salmonella and food poisoning will start to show.” All doctors whom NOW spoke to confirmed that H1N1 is not related to the garbage crisis. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Public Health is denying the gravity of the H1N1 outbreak despite several major cases reported. A NOW correspondent reported being informed of a man in his forties who died last month at a major hospital in Beirut after becoming infected with H1N1 virus. NOW also knows about another case of a woman who has been in an induced coma for a couple of weeks because of the same virus.


Environmental experts and doctors confirmed that burning garbage is the worst solution. However, they did not confirm whether the smoke from burning garbage can carry viruses or bacteria that can directly infect human beings. “Burning trash causes respiratory problems for people who suffer from Asthma, and can be infectious for sick people who suffer from lung diseases. The smell of burnt garbage can also hurt the lungs – and the poisonous gases can infect the lungs of people suffering from lung problems - but it does not cause [the creation] of viruses,” el-Helou told NOW.


A new virus started trending in media reports this week: the Zika virus. The mosquito Aedes albopictus is undergoing a worldwide expansion with potential consequences on transmission of various viruses. A study published in 2012 by BioMed Central Journal, revealed that this species of mosquitos was first detected in Lebanon in 2003. The study also said that specimens of the Aedes albopictus mosquitos were sampled during the months of September and October of 2009 and 2010. Today, director-general of the Health Ministry, Walid Ammar, confirmed that there have not been any cases of the virus in Lebanon yet, but the mosquito that transmits the disease is here.


“Aside from the Zika virus, we know for a fact that many viruses are circulating among the Lebanese,” said You Stink activist Aly Sleem. “We are trying to communicate with doctors to collect data about infected cases, viruses and diseases [caused by the garbage crisis], but they are not being cooperative. Doctors are probably scared to be pressured after they give us the information we need. Five days ago, an AUB report said that cancerous substances in the air in Lebanon exceeded the average general rate.”


Children and the elderly are suffering from asthma and having breathing difficulties, other people are suffering from abdominal pain and mild diarrhea– known as amoebiasis— and skin rashes caused by contaminated water. Yet, Lebanese authorities and large number physicians are denying the dangerousness of the situation on the health of humans to avoid causing panic among citizens; meanwhile, the Lebanese people are living in a highly infected environment.


“There is no reason to panic,” said el-Helou. “The media is giving the situation an image more dangerous than it really is.”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah.

A car hemmed in by rotting food and household waste in Beirut. (Image: AP / Bilal Hussein)

A NOW correspondent reported being informed of a man in his forties who died last month at a major hospital in Beirut after becoming infected with H1N1 virus."